There is no denying that the increase in the ability of individuals to communicate through social media channels has allowed greater freedom of expression, and given people a stronger voice than they have had before. With Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, the opinion of a single person can be transmitted around the world almost instantly, and people who previously would have had no access to that information can now comment on it, share it, and act on it.
Last year, the Anonymous group used Twitter and IRC to organise protests against websites that were acting against WikiLeaks which they saw as a a threat to freedom of information. Earlier this year we saw the use of social media to mobilise and organise protesters across the Middle East and give rise to the Arab Dawn. This week, following on from the News of the World phone hacking scandal, we have seen swift mobilisation of the masses against News International.
The common success of all of these groups is that they have been able to organise large numbers of grass roots support for ideologies that might not normally attract direct action. While people may tut disapprovingly at the latest attempts by Rupert Murdoch to stifle the truth in favour of whatever political agenda he has chosen to follow, it is only through media channels that are uncorrupted by his influence that they have been able to organise effectively.
The great strength of major social networks is that with millions of members, it becomes much more straightforward to find interest communities. In a city like Manchester with about half a million people, you might struggle to find 500 people who are willing to join a protest, on a platform like Facebook, with around 700 million people, the number of people willing to protest is much higher.
Within social media, protests are different. Common status updates are the placards, and likes or retweets are votes. As with online publishing, online protesting has a low barrier to entry, which means that there is less inertia against being part of the action. When you couple this with the need to belong that controls our social interactions, mass protests and self organising groups become highly visible very quickly.
News agencies are not immune to influence either. Professional journalists want to write stories that people read. And they are members of social communities too. They might present an air of public impartiality, but even if they are able to write without expressing support for an ideal, the editorial sway towards interest groups will always govern the news agenda. News outlets publicise online protests because they are an interesting and dynamic indicator of the changing interaction that we have with the online world. The more publicity they give, the more attention is awarded to the group. With stories as emotive as those being released about the cynical behaviour of NOTW staff, feelings within online groups are strong, which means that their influence is larger. We react to injustice and bullying strongly.
It is of course not just individuals who become informed about online protests through mass media, and not every member of the action group is just a regular person. Some have greater influence, whether political or commercial. Within hours of the latest stories breaking about NOTW invading the privacy of the families of murder victims, or soldiers killed in action, the attention moved from NI themselves to their commercial sponsors.
Advertisers such as Vauxhall, Halifax, Ford, Virgin Holidays, and others moved pretty quickly to cancel their relationships with NOTW.
While there may be de-facto organisers of Facebook Pages, or publishers of related blogs, the fact is that online protests are dynamic and multi faceted because of their nature. There is rarely a figurehead behind a Facebook campaign or a Twitter hash tag. And due to the speed with which the group can splinter and react to opinion, they can become a hydra attacking relentlessly from different angles until they receive their goal. A conventional political organisation will align itself around a set of ideals or behind a single leader. Political parties like Labour might be a broad church of opinion, but they have limited scope for expression of that opinion because they have a long term agenda. A single interest online protest group needs no leader, needs no defining values.
Protests that can self organise in a matter of hours need no fund raising, and do not need to concern themselves with the ability to appeal beyond a single issue.
Social media brings huge political influence to individuals because it is made up of communities.